2014-07-03 / Front Page

Council Finalizes Budget

By Barry Bridges

After weeks of debate and work sessions, the Newport City Council has given its final approval to the city’s budget for the new fiscal year that began on Tuesday, July 1.

At its meeting on Wednesday, June 25, councilors agreed to implement an overall 3.02 percent increase in property taxes, meaning that the residential rate will rise from $11.71 to $12.06 per $1,000 of assessed value. The commercial rate will increase from $16.23 to $16.72.

As in previous budget discussions, much of the focus on the expenditure side of the balance sheet revolved around the city’s level of school funding.

The Newport school system has struggled with deficits and therefore raised its funding request for the 2015 fiscal year. By law, school districts cannot seek an increase from their municipalities of more than four percent over the previous year. With Newport allocating $22.96 million to the schools in Fiscal Year 2014, the school department sought the maximum increase allowed from the city, or $918,366.

Councilors effectively met this funding request at the budget bill’s first reading on June 11, when they adopted a plan by Justin McLaugh- lin to appropriate an additional $418,000 to the schools while also moving $500,000 in school capital expenses to the city’s side of the ledger. This proposal received its final approval at the June 25 meeting.

Vice Chair Naomi Neville highlighted the council’s efforts in working to meet the needs of Newport students. “I feel like it’s the right time to allocate money to the schools during the regular budget process. Perhaps this is the ‘year of the schools,’” she said.

Mayor Henry Winthrop added that this is the first time that the council has fully funded the school request.

However, even with the boost from the city, the school department expects to see a deficit of around $1 million with status quo spending and $2 million with its “priority” scenario.

While acknowledging the impending shortfalls, McLaughlin echoed his past comments that education and economic development are intertwined. He remarked to Superintendent Colleen Jermain, “I just want to point out that even with the $418,000, you will still face challenges, but this is a wise investment.”

Councilor Michael Farley favored the additional school support, but declined to embrace the budget as a whole. “I agree with the mayor and Councilor Neville about funding schools and it’s due in large part to the new superintendent. At the end of the day, though, I am not going to support a 3.02 percent tax hike, because I had a different vision. I’m opposed to this budget not because of spending priorities, but because of revenue sources.”

In another matter that recently made headlines, monies for a needed upgrade of the elevator at City Hall were not earmarked in the 2015 budget, even though $300,000 for general accessibility improvements were included. On June 4, the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office said that meetings held in second-floor council chambers violate the provisions of the state’s Open Meetings Act because the elevator and stairway wheelchair lift do not allow for the physical attendance of persons with disabilities. Municipal meetings are now being held in accessible facilities elsewhere until the problem is addressed. The city hopes to find alternative funding to rectify the situation, which could be through a $6 million facilities bond that the voters will be asked to approve in November.

Following their discussion, councilors wrapped up the budgeting season by passing the package by a six-to-one margin. With his objection to the tax increase, Farley cast the opposing vote. In other business:

. The council OK’d a contract for the installation of an epoxy flooring system at the Water Division’s Halsey Street office and garage. Ralph J. Nassa Custom Floors of Cranston will replace the existing 40-year-old flooring at a cost of $25,350. . Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. was awarded a $301,763 contract for conceptual evaluation and engineering services for the Thames/ Spring Streetscape Improvement Project. This first phase is expected to be completed within 24 to 30 months and will produce a preferred design for the corridors in advance of final engineering. Plans could eventually place poles and wires underground if funding is secured, but Winthrop underscored the longrange nature of the effort and said, “This is the beginning of a process that will probably take years.”

. A supplemental contract dedicating an additional $300,000 to the ongoing Bellevue Avenue concrete restoration was approved. Repair work by the Aetna Bridge Company of Pawtucket began in the fall of 2012 and will continue at original unit prices. With the increased funding, the new project total is not to exceed $944,756. The end date now extends to July 31, 2015.

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